Monday, May 17, 2010

Review: Deadlands

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, since I am an old school RPGer, I'm familiar with and even had some of the books for the Deadlands RPG system, though I never got to play it. So, I am familiar with the game world. I am also one of the five people who owned, played and enjoyed the Werewolf: the Wild West game system and setting (the other four people were the other players in my campaign I ran). So I have nothing against mixing the supernatural with the Wild West.

The Overview:

The box is a compact 9.25" x 9.25' x 2.25" and features what looks like a Photoshopped silhouette of the Deadlands logo and the Hangin' Judge artwork layered on top of a stock photo of a Wild West building.

Everything in the box. 

Deadlands: The Battle for Slaughter Gulch is a horror themed combat and control game set in the world of Deadlands, which is an alternate American Wild West setting in which the lands of cowboys, sheriffs and marshals are transformed into a combination steampunk and horror setting with mad scientists, Native American shamans and the undead all battle for control of Ghost Rock, a mystical element that is used in the steampunk technology and also in many magic and mystic rituals. Add to that the evil spirit Reckoners who thrive on fear and cannot fully manifest on Earth unless the location is so taut with fear that the local environment itself becomes a physical manifestation of that fear and horror. Once the world is ripe enough with fear, the Reckoners will be able to fully pass into our world and create Hell on Earth.

Fortunately I had some experience with the Deadlands RPG system, because these themes are not really presented in the rulebook of the game to explain why magic using card shark Hucksters are battling Mad Scientists and Texas Rangers in a town populated by Saloon Girls, Gamblers, Soldiers, Prospectors and Zombies. I suppose that you don't necessarily have to know the setting to enjoy the game, but since it is a such a rich, interesting setting, I think the game did a bit of a disservice to itself by forgoing this.

Anyhow, each player controls on Outfit. The outfits include the Agency and the Texas Rangers (which are essentially lawmen), The Blessed, Hucksters and Shaman (which are spell casters) and Mad Scientists (who have steampunk gadgets). The town buildings are then randomly placed with the Mine and the Rail Station always sitting in static positions at either end of the town. Each player then begins with 3 equipment cards and the town locations are populated with a random Townsfolk. Each player also has a map representing the town layout in front of them and a screen to hide it from other players.

After everything is set up, the game end conditions are determined by rolling a six-sided die with each result offering a different way to trigger the end game. For example, if a "1" is rolled, then the game ends when the last encounter card is drawn. If a "2" is rolled, then it ends when one Outfit controls at least 3 locations at the beginning of a turn. Each player then marks on their player map where they want their starting 3 characters to begin and then all players simultaneously reveal their maps and move their characters to their starting locations.

Play then begins with each turn representing one day in Slaughter Gulch. Each player has a number of tokens that represent the unique actions that their Outfit can perform. Each player chooses an action for each of their characters and places it on their personal map behind their screen, also using the tokens to denote where each character will move that turn. After everyone has finished placing their tokens, all maps are revealed and everyone moves their characters to the locations marked on their player maps.

After the characters are moved, two random event cards are drawn and resolved. Events may signify new Townsfolk arriving in town, a possible jailbreak, someone in jail getting hung, stampedes, trains coming to town and so on.

After that, the action tokens for each character are resolved. Starting at the Railroad and moving clockwise around the town locations, each player resolves the action tokens for any of their characters in that location. This is the meat of the turn and the game. Each action token has a number on it as well to determine the order that they are resolved in if there are multiple characters in one location. Actions differ by Outfit, but there are some standard actions available for all factions (such as Fight, Recruit, Shop, Prospect). Other actions are Outfit specific (casting Spells, Mesmerize, Arrest, Raise the Dead, invent a Gadget).

Just because you have placed an action token does not necessarily mean that you will be able to perform that action since the tokens were placed without knowing how or where the other players would be moving. So you may have played a Fight action because you expected to be on the same location with a character of another Outfit, but it ended up that he moved out of the space during his movement, leaving you with no one to fight. Certain other actions are even more tricky to perform on members of another Outfit, such as Arrest. In order to successfully perform the Arrest action, the character needs to be in the same location as a member of another Outfit and the opposing character must have used the Action of Rob or Shoot earlier that round. Now, these actions can still be performed on Townsfolk in that location, but it really is rather tricky to set it up to affect another Outfit member with it. Other actions, such as Rob, can be used to try to rob a train or stage coach coming into town, however, it must be done blindly since you must place the action before the event cards are drawn and so you do not necessarily know if a train or stage coach will even be in town that turn.

Some actions need to you roll a number of dice based on your Outfit's stat and compare your result to a target number that you need to meet or exceed. For example, trying to Rob a Townsfolk you would check their Agility score (in this case "5") for the target number. If your Agility is 2d6, then you need to roll 2 six-sided dice and take the highest result of the two dice. If either of them is 5 or higher, then you would succeed.

Direct conflicts between two players, such as fights and such, are resolved by rolling a number of six-sided dice based on your Outfit's stats and taking the highest result. For example, if a Texas Ranger with a Shootin' stat of 2d6 tries to shoot a Huckster with an Agility stat of 2d6, the Ranger would roll 2 six-sided dice and take the highest result. The Huckster tries to dodge and rolls 2 six-sided dice and takes his highest result. Whoever has the higher result wins. Ties are rerolled. However, if a six is rolled on any of the dice, it is rerolled and added to the new dice rolls. If another six comes up, it is also added to the total and rerolled again. This lets a character pull off almost impossible feats with a bit of luck on their die rolls.

If you have the most amount of characters in a location, that location gives you extra abilities that your Outfit can use.

Each Outfit also has a number of Objective Cards that they have at the beginning of the game. Objectives are Outfit specific and offer a way for players to get victory points throughout the game. The Mad Scientists, for example, get 2 Victory Points if they can damage and 2 characters with a gadget and the Texas Rangers get 1 Victory Point for arresting 2 Evil NPC Townsfolk. Each Outfit has 6 different Objectives that they can complete.

This continues until the end game conditions rolled at the game start are met. When the game ends, each player gets 1 Victory Point per character they have, 1 VP for each Ghost Rock they have, 5 VPs for each location they control (having the most characters in it), the Victory Points for every Objective they've completed and every Item, Spell or Gadget that they possess offers a number of Victory Points as well. Whoever has the highest total is named the Mayor of Slaughter Gulch and wins the game.

The Theme:

As I stated earlier, Deadlands: The Battle for Slaughter Gulch comes from a setting of rich and heavy theme, but the game does not offer up a good descriptive writing of what is going on in the world. Still, it does not make the game in any way unplayable, but it is just a missed opportunity to explain why these cowboys are fighting living dead horrors.

Each of the factions plays differently and has a different feel to it. This is represented not only by the different stats of each Outfit, but also by the different Objectives that each Outfit has and the fact that each Outfit has its own group of Actions that they can perform. I really like that each faction is set up like this and it really does give each faction a unique feel.

Events and encounters are a little generic and could probably bring in a little more feel of the horror of the Deadlands world, but I suppose this specific game isn't about the horror of the setting and instead focuses on the difference in the Outfits.

Learning the Game:

The rules of this game are atrocious. The basics are laid out well enough and you get a good enough sense of how the game is supposed to play. However, there is a lot of ambiguity in the rules when specific events start to occur within the game. Currently the 20 page 5.5" x 8.5" rule book is supplemented by an 8 page 8.5" x 11" FAQ document.

A lot of the ambiguity comes from the application of some of the Spells and specific Items and equipment and how their effects are implemented in the game. I highly suggest printing out this FAQ before you play your first game and keeping it handy. It also would not be bad to have close access to BGG to check the question forums as well when you play your first game just in case you come across any ambiguities not in the FAQ.

The rulebook itself does not have many illustrations and precious few examples. It really feels like it was hastily put together and is missing a lot. A section at the end to explain the specifics of some of the cards would have been great, as would have including more examples and perhaps a few more illustrations.

The Components:

Each Outfit has 6 well produced, detailed figures to represent their characters in the game, all of which match one of these unique figures. 

An example Encounter Card which denotes what Townsfolk is at a specific location.

A town tile. These are laid out randomly to create the town of Slaughter Gulch.

A game in progress.

The figures for the game are beautiful. The illustrations and artwork on all of the cards is very beautiful and very fitting for the theme and style of the game. Ghost Rock totals are represented by small crystal rocks and are sufficient and thematic. The town segments are on a sturdy board and are a little bland in appearance. However, considering the random modular board set up and the fact that really the American Wild West doesn't exactly offer up a vibrant color palette to use, they are fully acceptable and completely functional.

If you take into account that it is a smaller press game, the components are really exemplary. The only real complaints that I have with the components (other than the rulebook) are minor.

The player maps are a regular part of the game and every player uses one religiously throughout the game. They are preprinted, but in such a way that they are still useful considering the modular random build of the town. However, in two-player games, four of the locations are removed from the town. The player maps then do not reflect the correct building lay out. The backs of the player maps should have a 8 building town set up on it to reflect the different town layout if the 2-player variant is going to be included in the standard rules.

Finally, a very small complaint that I have is the over use of the standard "Old West" font. It looks great for titles and headlines and is very thematic. But the thick, hard serif font does not work so well when entire lines and paragraphs of text are written out like this. Fortunately, this is not the case in the rulebook, but every player's Outfit screen has their Outfit and turn summaries written on them in this font. It is a bit difficult to read and almost headache inducing with the thick solid black letters piercing so hard against the stark white background. It may just be me on this one (and it really is a minor issue), but having a printing background, it really stands out to me as an overuse of the font going more for style than clarity on the screens.

Playing the Game:

Playing the game is a jumbled, sometimes frustrating experience for your first play. Again, I highly suggest printing out the FAQ before playing to help explain some Spell timing issues and other rule ambiguities. Later plays become smoother, but that first experience may just turn too many people off to hit the point where it is smoother.

The positives of the play, however, come from the different Outfit play styles and each really does have its own agenda and goals. Those familiar with the Deadlands RPG will see how the game Outfits capture the theme of the RPG game.

However, the hidden movement of other players and choosing your actions before seeing where people will be or what is arriving in town makes some of the play feel overly chaotic. If I am playing a law character and I'm looking to arrest another player, it really comes simply down to complete luck that I played the action on a turn when another Outfit character is also in my location and has either played a Rob or Shoot action. This is good in the sense that it doesn't overpower the law characters from just blindly arresting everyone, but it does make it's applicable use against other players really just chaotic. The same goes with trying to rob a stage coach or a train. I may have a character up and ready at the train station, ready to rob, but none arrives. Granted, controlling the Telegraph office lets you peek at the upcoming Event Cards, but without that, it is just blind luck on if you have a coach to rob or not. Perhaps that is part of the game that is intentional: Mitigating and anticipating actions through the chaos. However, the problem with that is that when you are unsuccessful, you just get the feel of the chaos and randomness in the game.


The game is for 2-6 players. Two players, as I stated, modifies the game board and the biggest problem with the scaling of it comes with the board layout differing from the player maps. The problem with the scalability is that some faction abilities seem to be a bit more suited to more players than others. For example, as I mentioned before, getting a successful "Arrest" action against another Outfit is such a random chance. However, with more players and more Outfits, more players are on the board and you end up being more likely to end up in a location with another Outfit member who may be doing an arrestable action. It still can get a little random and chaotic, but your chances of hitting the right location at the right time are increased a bit (and again, these actions can still be used against Townsfolk, but by forcing these actions to only be used in this manner weakens the interaction potential of this game, especially for these factions).

More players can cause more chaos, so in that respect 3 or maybe 4 players may be best. More players does not necessarily lengthen the game play time, but rather the random end game conditions seem to have the most effect on game length.

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner and the more she likes a game, the less I'll have to indulge her in her favorite games to build up my "game capital" to get those I like more to the table. That being said, my wife really did not like this game. She plays RPGs, but was not familiar with Deadlands. She also has a vagina and apparently with that comes a complete disinterest in the American Wild West setting.

Our first game had too many pauses to try to decipher some of the rule situations that occurred and she was very much turned off by that downtime. Our other players were disappointed with the game, but were interested in trying it again once we figured out more of the rules exceptions. My wife, however, was not that interested in giving it another go.

The Pros:

*The Outfits tie into the Deadlands RPG very well.
*Good, solid components, especially for a smaller publisher.
*Outfits each play very differently with different abilities and different Objectives, abilities and style.
*Variable town set up and variable game endings offers a fair amount of variety in just the game set up.

The Cons:

*Rulebook is terrible, especially when the ambiguity of specifics in the game begin to occur.
*Two-player town maps should have been included (you'd only need two of them).
*The chaotic elements of the game may really turn off some players.
*Failed opportunity to really bring in a lot of the Deadlands RPG elements, at least by having a few paragraphs of back story text in the game world.


Deadlands: The Battle of Slaughter Gulch is a game that I really wanted to like and enjoy, but found that it was an uphill battle and every step along the way took more and more of my momentum away. There are a lot of individual elements that I really like in the game, including the different Outfit abilities and play styles and the possibilities of player interaction. However, the game does not pull them together well enough to make it stand out enough to fight through the rules ambiguities and game chaos. Too much chaos occurs in the game and while part of the game strategy is trying to anticipate your opponents' moves, the end result when you fail just reinforces the feel of chaos in the game when you find yourself alone in the street trying to fight someone, standing in an empty building trying to arrest no one or you and your gang at the train station, ready to rob a train that never arrives. The game is close to pulling it all together for a great experience, but ultimately is pulled down by its own chaos and poor rules.


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